Sometimes technology and culture smash into one another in surprising ways that no one could have predicted, changing the future by necessity. But much of the time the trend feels so inevitable that you can see it coming from miles away. Nowhere has this pattern been clearer than in virtual reality, where for years there have been assurances the technology is about to initiate the next great paradigm shift in entertainment. And as music festivals have undergone concurrent growth, eating up huge parts of the live music industry in general, the question of VR's saturation in the festival world has become more of a "when" than an "if." Music festivals are gearing up for what they see as an inevitable arms race in VR experiences, and this summer is likely to be an inflection point.
"There's kind of a mad scramble," said Daniel Gibbs, visual media director for C3 Presents, the concert promotion giant responsible for Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits. But what could that really mean for music fans? For a technology that's been aggressively as the potential catalyst for world-changing revolution, most of the VR content that I've experienced in the past hasn't struck me as particularly innovative. Seeing the words "music festival" and "virtual reality" in close proximity conjures up, in my mind, a 360-degree version of the typical festival livestream. Are people really clamoring for that? I'm not the only person with a dim view of the possibilities of mixing live music and VR—my editor's response to my "VR and music festivals" pitch was the email equivalent of a long, resigned sigh. Luckily, the pressure is pushing festivals and their VR gurus to try out novel approaches. "The sky's the limit in those regards," Gibbs told me. "Technology is catching up pretty quickly with almost anything you can dream up."
And so I recently found myself walking into LA's sprawling Hangar Studios for an event that was supposed to demonstrate how virtual reality "will transform the way we experience live music." I expected to see demo stations and groups of headsetted guests in the awkward postures of people trying out new VR setups as they experienced what it was like to see a music festival from a drone's 360-degree perspective. I didn't expect that I'd be walking into a chilly forest scene with actual birch trees reaching up toward the sound stage's ceiling and actual snow drifting down, alongside a mob of young Californians who seemed legitimately mystified to be suddenly encountering winter.
The experience only got more Narnia-like as I was escorted through an entrance in a wall full of doors and into a cubicle, where an attendant strapped me into a Playstation VR headset. With the headset on, I was left to experience a short immersive animation set to the Chainsmokers' "Roses," starring wolves and giants rendered in the psychedelically vivid style that pops up frequently on branded festival merch. When it was over the attendant opened a door in the other side of the cubicle from where I'd entered and let me out into a huge room elaborately decorated to resemble an IRL manifestation of the animation's summery dreamworld, where the Chainsmokers would perform on what looked like a grassy hill. I was confused. This… didn't suck?
"It's inevitably the future," Chainsmoker Drew Taggart told me backstage, explaining his own skepticism about most music-related VR concepts after offering me a shot of tequila from the duo's generous green room spread. "We've been in music doing this for four or five years now. In that period we've seen the beginning of virtual reality in terms of for consumers, and we've seen people try to incorporate it into things we use and have it not work. So I feel like we're about to get to that first… They're catching on about how to set a VR experience to really get people to understand what it is and what it can be. There's obviously still a long way to go."
It turns out that even a lot of people in the virtual reality feel the same way. "There's a lot of 360 video out there, which is kind of cool initially," said Chris Hassel, a director at RALPH, the virtual reality game studio that designed the Sony event. "But then when you look at it from a narrative point of view a lot of it you think, what's the point in it being 360? A live music gig is a great, great experience. There's a reason that people go to them. There's a reason why they're still a big part of life. I think rather than trying to muscle in on that space, it's about trying to provide different opportunities."
The elaborate staging at "The Beginning," as the event—the first in a series called Lost In Music—was grandiloquently titled, would obviously be difficult to reproduce, but RALPH's clever use of the immersive animation to prime the minds of audience members for a magical experience could be a scalable model for incorporating VR into a live music experience without resorting to updating the livestream model.
"We didn't actually start with the VR," Hassel explained. "We started with ideas of how to play with people psychologically when they got to the event." The study of virtual reality's ability to affect us psychologically is still in its early days, but results show that it can have a profound influence on our state of mind. Using VR to subtly tweak concert goers' mental states could be a key way for using the technology to enhance a live music experience.
"Honestly, everybody thinks the concert experience, that first-row experience, is what you want... Everyone's been to a concert. I'd rather tell a story."
Manhattan-based VR developer Littlstar is in "creative mode" when it comes to developing concepts for festivals, said co-founder and chief content officer Matthew Collado. Along with entertainment properties like Mr. Robot and Disney theme parks, Littlstar has created forward-looking music-centered VR content for OneRepublic, Disturbed, and Eden, and they're currently tasked with developing the VR layer for Governors Ball.
"Honestly, everybody thinks the concert experience, that first-row experience, is what you want," said Collado. "Which is great, but I'd much rather have a full experience that isn't all concert front row. Everyone's been to a concert. I'd rather tell a story." Some of his ideas are fairly low-concept, like sending 360 cameras behind the scenes to mingle with the talent. "If you're backstage with Paul McCartney and he addresses you as a fan like, 'All right we're getting ready to rock it at Gov Ball,' you're like, 'oh shit, Sir Paul just talked to me,'" he imagined. "You're going to lose your shit."
But he also gave me a run through an immersive music video for a Kygo track that levitates you through layers of a CG environment from a lagoon full of luminescent jellyfish all the way into outer space. The fact that I'm not the world's biggest Kygo fan didn't seem to have any effect on the powerfully blissed-out feeling the experience gave me. I could imagine experiencing it in a live setting, MIDI-synced to the performance and with the added haptic dimension of a bone-rattling arena-level PA, and I had a suspicion that technology may have finally improved on the experience of seeing a concert while on psychedelic drugs. I can't even imagine how intense it would be to do them all at once.
Still, the allure of the basic livestream seems to have an irresistible draw to festivals. After our demo, Alex Joffe, from Governors Ball producers Founders Entertainment, peppered a guy who rents out VR gear about a 360 camera he has that's light enough to mount on a drone or cable system. Gibbs, of C3, couldn't comment on specifics for VR deployment at C3's festivals this year, but he said that they plan on expanding both their on-site experiences and livestream capabilities. However, the latter will probably come with a twist. One of the concepts he seemed most excited to discuss was what he called "VR Karaoake," which would let people at home share the perspective of a performer on stage at Lollapalooza.
"One of the things we always think about with VR is, like, 'wow, we can put someone anywhere they want to be,'" he said. "Let's put them on the main stage performing in front of 80,000 people." Of course, not everyone is going to see the appeal in that experience.
"Most people want things that they haven't earned," said Chavez guitarist and hired-gun sideman Matt Sweeney when I asked him his opinion about mixing live music and VR. "So in that regard I guess people seeking adoration will probably want to have the experience of being on stage." To be fair, he's also not a big fan of music fests in general. He added, "VR at a festival would be great if it gave you the experience of not being at a festival." But what if VR could do something exactly like that, building a fantasy world along the lines of Littlstar's Kygo concept?
Florida's Okeechobee Music and Arts Festival is only a fraction of the size of Lollapalooza or Governors Ball, but its VR plans are more ambitious than either. This year the festival is partnering with the Vision Agency, creators of a VR platform called Microdose. Created alongside digital artist Android Jones and electronic music producer Evan Bluetech, Microdose is essentially an immersive VR environment for manipulating audio and visual information using physical gestures. Users could use it to arrange audio stems, remix live signals, or accompany a performance as a VJ.
"Our vision is to give somebody the ability to dance a painting into existence or to sculpt a piece of music," Jones explained. "In the future when you go see Tool or Deadmau5 or Radiohead, instead of having visuals on giant jumbotrons we could use Microdose to basically create living three-dimensional holographic particles and dragons that fill the entire arena."
Unlike the passive consumer paradigm that's defined the festival livestream and still seems to be guiding most festivals' explorations of VR, Microdose could potentially allow audience members to become active participants in the music performances they experience. The upcoming Okeechobee installment in March will feature a 30-minute VJ performance produced in Microdose that will be projected in 20K resolution onto a 120-foot-wide peacock-tail-shaped "water wall" made by an array of jets in a pond on the festival grounds. This time around it'll be a "Microdose expert" producing the visuals, but Android Jones hopes that one day anyone in the audience will be able to try their hand at it.
"As long as they don't just draw dicks on the screen of the main stage," he laughed, "I think we'll be good."
Photos of The Chainsmokers' "Lost in Music" event, courtesy Sony
Miles Raymer is a writer based in New York. Follow him on Twitter.